By Devin O’Neill
The following will be a review of the new Miley Cyrus album Bangerz, and the promotional and branding strategies surrounding the album’s release.
First we’ll discuss the music, since that’s definitely the neglected part of the equation.
Miley’s come up with a new pop sound, and it works. I love it. I’m going to have to rethink my approach to a lot of what’s on the radio, to Top 40, because of what’s been done here. It makes a lot of current pop sound dated. Recent Top 40’s been influenced heavily by 120-BPM dance music. Big-tent electronica. Think Ke$ha, LMFAO, even the new Britney. Miley’s drawn a line and departed from all that.
She and her team have accomplished this by, basically, incorporating cutting-edge trends in hip-hop – trap, drill, what-have-you – into her sound, alongside country and pop. The textures are round and thick, not excessively massive or blown-out like a lot of the pop on the radio. It’s got a great bottom end and tons of clarity, and reminds me of soundscapes I’ve heard from Die Antwoord, Drake, even Dr. Dre.
She’s mixing and matching musical styles, but her personality ties it all together into a vital brand. She can pose herself as country, and pull off a hip-hop-hoedown with Nelly on “4x4”, the only modern club banger I’ve ever heard with a straight-up cowgirl-line-dance rhythm.
The whole album is like this. She uses her raunchy southern-girl attitude to smooth the edges between raw hip-hop and the other forms she’s playing with, while rocking her new look. The result is very pop, very confrontational, and very her. One massive debutante fuck-you. “Do My Thang” is an archetypal example of the sound, and probably my favorite track on the album.
Her lyrics are raw, confrontational, and naive, which, in the context of this sort of ratchet/cowgirl persona, works perfectly. Think 2 Chainz yelling “SHE GOT A BIG BOOTY SO I CALL HER BIG BOOTY”. Hard-skulled punk-hop. In fact the weakest moments, lyrically, are those where Miley tries to over-rationalize or move outside her pure attitude. Attitude is the fuel this album runs on. Attitude and romance.
Yeah, Miley’s 20, so a lot of these songs are about love, sex, even marriage. They’re wide-eyed and openhearted, and, combined with her determination to decide what her own moral boundaries are, make for a compelling window into the fire of youth. It’s almost like she has unlimited energy, and she sings with an enormous amount of confidence and conviction.
The album art is straight out of Tumblr. A collaged, retro explosion of ridiculousness, neon, palm trees, and lo-fi digital. Anyone who hasn’t spent time in some pretty weird corners of the Internet might be confused. Others will recognize the aesthetic immediately, especially if they’re into performers like Geneva Jacuzzi. It’s all archival scuzz.
This singularity of identity, though, isn’t restricted to the album. So now, we get to the rest of the equation. Now we get to the secret plan.
Soon, an MTV documentary is going to air called Miley: The Movement. This documentary was filmed before, during, and after her VMA incident, and during the recording process for the album, way back before the release of the first single.
Yes, you heard that correctly. All of this was orchestrated in advance. The VMA performance, the reaction, the SNL gig, the release of the album and the documentary, everything. The official album release is on Tuesday, 8 October 2013, and the entire mainstream media machine is perfectly primed.
Wait, it gets better.
Her co-executive producer on the album is a 24-year-old called Mike Will Made It, another millennial. Given his other production credits, he’s clearly largely responsible for helping her craft her new sound.
Which makes sense, of course, if Miley’s being mentored by Kanye, or if he regards her as some sort of muse. Which this Rolling Stone article seems to indicate. She’s attempting, in a very young, green way, to follow in his footsteps as a contemporary innovator. And he seems to think she’s today’s most vital force in pop music.
Immediately after the VMA performance, it was announced that Miley would be collaborating with Kanye on a remix of his aggressive single, “Black Skinhead.”
Everything’s falling into place.
Now, let’s talk about why Miley’s doing all this.
This girl’s been controlled by Disney since she was 14 years old. She never got to be a teenager. There’s a delightful symmetry in the fact that she recorded one new song, “SMS”, with a guest-spot from another southern, female Disney escapee: Britney Spears.
Just before all this new business started happening, Miley fired her old management. She wants to rebel, she wants to break free, she wants to create a new identity.
All this is standard behavior for a 20-year-old, but very few do it in the public eye, with such ferocity, with such a singular voice, and without having a mental breakdown. Miley is totally lucid in interviews and on SNL. She’s well aware of what’s going on. Sex and drugs are not weird things for a 20-year-old female to indulge in, especially one dedicated to going hard and living her own life. She’s angling for a particular image and she’s hitting her mark; she isn’t missing. If it pisses you off, it’s because it’s supposed to.
There’s a comment on that video that reads “ILLUMINATI BRAINWASHED DEVIL WORSHIPPING SKANK”. Seriously.
This is what makes me love her so much. Because she is flatly refusing to allow previous generations to allow, really, anybody but herself to delineate what constitutes moral, appropriate, or artistically compelling behavior for her as a performer or a person. This is what the best, most interesting performers do. We have forgotten that punk rock and hip-hop used to piss people off and disgust them. We’ve come to appreciate dignified, safe entertainment that adheres to academic notions of “quality” and “skill” and “artfulness”. I can hear John Lydon puking somewhere.
It’s never been clear to me, exactly, what people are afraid of, when it comes to Miley and others like her. They seem to think that their children are going to be perverted and corrupted, that the entire culture is going to collapse, because of the way Miley is behaving. It’s not. They won’t be.
This reaction represents the entire digital-fear, social-media-is-fucking-us-kids-up, millennial-paranoia problem. And we are so sick of all of it. Fuck it and fuck you too. That’s what Miley’s saying. We are fine. We are doing what we want. Leave us the hell alone. Hers is the essential millennial battle-cry.
At core, this is an issue of demographics. There is a group of people that Miley’s behavior shocks. But me, and my closest contemporaries, do not belong to this group. This is not shocking to us. It’s beautiful. This is how we live, and this is the world we live in. We have all tried drugs and gone to fetish parties and skinny-dipped in public pools. Miley is not only attempting to be provocative; she is also trying to be honest. This likely horrifies people even more.
But we don’t care what you think, and neither does she – that’s the entire point. This is the synergy, the energy, of rebellion. This is how culture finds the impetus to evolve.
We’re still dealing with cultural conversations, for example, around the “appropriateness” of sexuality and sexual expression. “Raunchiness”, nudity, these things still get attention. But they get attention because sex is still shocking. Because we don’t have conversations about it. Because we still have a problem with it. We have not solved this neurosis. Miley is pushing for it to finally die, but she wants the conversation to die on her note, not theirs. This is the new acceptable, this is the new normal, deal with it.
The people obsessed with her ass are the ones paying attention to it. The rest of us, her fans, are interested in her attitude, the weirdness and ghetto-fabulousness of her videos, the thick thud and clear quality of her music. I promise you we do not YouTube or Google her only to stare at her boobies for hours at a time. We do. Not. Care.
People argue that the “uninformed masses” react to, and buy, sex. She’s just riding that, they say. But THEY ARE the “uninformed masses”. They see her as dangerous, and she feels the pressure from that conversation. They’re trying to destroy her, and that’s why she fights. She feels the need to tell everyone she “can’t stop” because everyone is trying to stop her. You watched them doing it; heard them all yelling at her to quiet the fuck down. It’s been all over the news and all over your Facebook feed.
Why do they care? Is she that unsettling?
People’s reaction to her “rebelliousness”, the expectations placed upon her, are just an extension of the oppressive forces that were the impetus for her to do this in the first place. It’s Disney all over again, people want her to be safe and wholesome. And she wants out. And she will continue wanting out.
The conversation about her being objectified, her reducing her image to sexuality, about her using that to draw people’s attention away from the art, that kind of talk doesn’t occur in a vacuum. If people assume there’s nothing else of value going on because she’s being sexual, if that’s all they pay attention to, that’s not Miley’s fault. That’s theirs. It’s clearly important to her to express herself sexually right now, but her sexuality doesn’t have to be reductive. It’s made that way by those reading it, and ignoring everything else.
This is schizophrenic feminism – it’s a conflict that we haven’t even nearly figured out, the same conflict prodded at by Marie Calloway and others like her in more academic corners of the culture. The feminist community cannot decide if being overtly sexual in public is a claiming or a relinquishing of agency. Well, Miley isn’t waiting on the results of our decision. She’s just decided to be herself.
Really, though, this isn’t about the sex. There are porn stars younger than Miley all over the Internet. It’s about the context she’s placed her sexuality in; the deep weirdness of the entire situation, of the aesthetics of her evolution. This in aggregate is far more interesting than her ass alone could ever be, and that deep weirdness is the real reason people are paying attention.
I love few things more than deep weirdness.
I am not interested in wrapping myself in a comforting cocoon of nostalgia, or in cutting myself off from the pushers of the next generation. I’m always going to be pushing, I’m always going to be at the edge, and I’m never going to give up. I try as hard as possible to tune in to new culture. When I’m reminded that there are always going to be 20-year-old-kids throwing existential and aesthetic tantrums, and shoving culture kicking and screaming into new modes of expression, it gives me so much hope. This is why I’m inspired by Miley Cyrus. She makes me feel alive.
I don’t crave polished, “dignified” music, or carefully-curated, smooth-pop sexiness. I’m not interested in recycling aesthetics over and over again. These are not things I see as worth fighting for, artistically. But Miley, as simple as her work is, gave me something new to fight for. It made me realize that pop music could still surprise me, and that’s more valuable to me than having my sensibilities soothed and my aesthetic rubrics reinforced. I can’t help but feel the life in what she’s doing; the fire. And whenever I see that fire my instinct is to protect it.
They seem to like you for the moment, Miley. They’re coming around. But it might not last. They might surround you and try to shut you up again. Blow them back. Keep twerking. For me, and for all of us.
Devin O’Neill is a transmedia storyteller, branding practitioner, and performance artist. He enjoys things he shouldn’t, on purpose, and tries to get other people to enjoy them too. Make friends with him at https://facebook.com/devinoneill
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